Several thousand years ago, intrepid traders from China began making their way west, laden with precious silk, in the hopes of selling their cargo. They were unwittingly opening up the trading route that became to be known as ‘The Silk Road’, a vast network of highways and tributaries that changed the cultures it cross-sected.
When I think of ‘The Silk Road’ I imagine enormous caravans of camels and donkeys, loaded to the max, plodding their way across Asia as their human handlers egged them on. When I think of the trading meccas that sprang up along the way from Xian all the way to Rome, I hear noisy crowds of shoppers and imagine marketplaces teeming with activity. When I think of the myriad shops, inns and food purveyors that opened their doors to travelers passing through, I smell the aromas of (among other things) the spices of entire global regions and sniff in my mind’s eye to inhale their headiness.
We are extremely lucky to live in the 21st Century. Because of the active trading that took part along ‘The Silk Road’, spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and coriander, to name only a few, are regular pantry elements in the kitchens of today’s cooks. But a mere 2 thousand years ago, you would only have been able to use these to flavor a dish if you lived in South East Asia.
It fascinates me to have learned that spices, as they began to be introduced to different cultures, were not initially used for cooking. Instead, worth more than their weight in silver to some, they were used as demonstrations of wealth. A tray piled high with, say, cardamom pods surely went a long way towards mitigating the miasma emitting from the hordes of unwashed masses. By the time cinnamon made its way to Egypt, it was used principally in the embalming process the Egyptians are so known for – cinnamon’s phenols were such wonderful preservatives that they also used it to cure meat. Ginger was viewed as a magical medicinal plant, know to calm stomach woes.
Somewhere along the line, people began to realize that spices could be used to enhance the natural flavor of foods. Who knows? Maybe someone drank their umpteenth cup of ginger tea for upset stomach while consuming a plate of vegetables and loved the taste combination. Or a plate of lamb was served, un-rinsed and cooked in the cinnamon used to preserve it next to some meat that hadn’t received the same treatment. We’ll never know for sure what prompted cooks to pick up a spice and play with its potential, but I, for one, continually thank the culinary gods that they did, for where would our food be now if not for those adventurous souls?